When did gardening get so cool?

Alice Vincent

While flowers have always enjoyed a love affair with fashion, growing them has rarely been considered a cool pursuit. The associations with grubby fingernails, foam kneelers and, let’s face it, retirement have long seen gardening relegated to being one of life’s less chic hobbies.

However in recent years being green-fingered has quietly become not only acceptable but aspirational. Kate Moss and fashion photographer Nick Knight have come out as keen growers, while Elizabeth Hurley and Cindy Crawford water lawns and pick flowers on their Instagram accounts. A green revolution has taken over the high street and our homes.

Research published in April showed that millennials are spending more money on gardening than their parents. A month later, Alexa Chung enjoyed a stroll around Chelsea Flower Show, and her Instagram post from inside the Great Pavilion earned more than 40,000 likes.

The fashion world, too, is getting leafier: fern fronds tumble out of planters by the doors of Liberty, while the staff of & Other Stories must be green-fingered enough to tend to the dozens of succulents that decorate its clothes rails.

Although east London’s Columbia Road Market has been selling plants and flowers to the public since the 1960s, it took a flurry of new designer shops opening in the area to help redefine our desire for flora.

House of Hackney’s now-iconic Palmeral print has been wooing interiors fans since the brand’s launch in 2011, but when founders Frieda Gormley and Javvy M Royle opened a shop on Shoreditch High Street, they discovered people wanted to buy real plants from them, too.

People are more tempted to spend £300 on an architectural plant than the latest Tom Dixon lamp

And it’s not just about London: Sheffield-based photography duo Haarkon have amassed 162,000 Instagram followers and secured collaborations with Barbour, Woolrich and Urban Outfitters, largely thanks to their pictures from trips to botanical greenhouses and some of the most beautiful gardens in the world.

Gardening enjoyed its last (sort of) glamorous moment in the 1970s, when Percy Thrower rose to fame as the first celebrity gardener and The Good Life’s Felicity Kendal lent her youth and sex appeal to growing your own. But it’s our new appreciation for mid-century design that has given houseplants a huge resurgence – and taken them out of granny’s conservatory and into the spotlight. 

‘As all these amazing homes in Elle Decoration and Monocle have become filled with plants, people are more tempted to spend £300 on an architectural plant such as a banana palm or a fiddle-leaf fig, rather than the latest Tom Dixon lamp,’ explains Sophie Lee, who set up her plant design business, Geo-fleur, in Walthamstow in 2011. Her shop, which may be relocating to York as the trend spreads nationwide, was among a flurry of east London openings that followed in House of Hackney’s footsteps.

Among them, on Hackney Road, is  Grace & Thorn. Six years ago founder Nik Southern left a recruitment job to rip up the floristry rule book. Her beautifully chaotic arrangements swiftly caught the attention of editors at Vogue, and when Alexa Chung launched her eponymous clothing line a few days after Chelsea, it was Southern who made sure her party was adorned with blowsy roses and hedgerow greenery.

Three Grace & Thorn shops have now opened across London, and they share the industrial aesthetic of other new plant shops and florists, such as Conservatory Archives, Botany, Prick and Botanique Workshop.

Together, they are replacing the old-fashioned image of garden centres and nurseries, and are packed with vintage furniture, aspirational merchandising and just plain beautiful plants. They are also, of course, huge on Instagram, where a single post, Lee attests, can sell 19 plants.

Instagram has been the catalyst for gardening’s resurgence. And I should know, because it helped turn me from a plant-murdering rookie into a published gardening author in 15 months.

I’ve been growing things on my south London balcony for more than three years, but when I noticed that my photographs of microgreens and sweet peas were generating more likes and comments than anything else on my feed, I set up a separate gardening account, @noughticulture. My following is relatively modest – around 6,000 – but it became a place to share the tiny triumphs and trials of growing.

Finding that the internet and existing books presented a frustrating overload of information aimed at people with much more space, time and money than me, I started writing about gardening for those who didn’t know where to start  – for this newspaper.

The floral shelves at & Other Stories Credit: & Other Stories

Within three months,  I got a call from a publisher, and my book, How to Grow Stuff, came out this spring. Publishers follow trends as closely as fashion magazines monitor the runway, and mine was among a crop of books published in the past year aimed at new gardeners.

Caro Langton and Rose Ray brought out House of Plants, an ode to the Hampstead Heath home of Langton’s late grandmother (the pair have a plant design business).  Lee released Living with Plants, a compendium of houseplants with millennial-pink-tipped pages, and Southern followed with How Not to Kill Your Plants, which included instructions on how to  take the best plant ‘shelfie’.

My own book  is less niche – and, arguably, less fashionable. It spells out simply, for  the complete beginner, how to grow 20 hard-to-kill flowers, herbs, vegetables, salads and houseplants. 

Alice Vincent in her balcony garden

For two terrified weeks before publication, I was convinced that the gardening establishment would  publicly shame me for my ignorance and that people didn’t really want to grow things at all. But it turned out that they did. By June, my book was sitting in the window of every Urban Outfitters store in Europe.

Gardens Illustrated, the Vogue of horticulture, gave it a lovely review, and as this year’s crop of salad leaves started to germinate, I began to feel like less of a fraud.

It’s only fitting that gardening should collide with the shift towards healthy, conscious eating

Suddenly, knowing how to look after plants wasn’t nerdy but really rather desirable – rarely a day goes by without a friend asking me for help with their houseplants. With the onset of summer, my social-media feeds filled up with people rejoicing in their blooming window boxes.

Gardening’s revival goes hand in hand with the wider shift towards wholesome activities, such as clean eating and strength training. ‘I think the green revolution spans from your ferns and pilea to the kale and peas you put on your plate,’ says London Terrariums founder Emma Sibley, who runs at-home gardening workshops – think Tupperware or Body Shop parties with a cool, green twist – and has recently opened her first shop.

For me, and everyone else who needs an escape from the pace of modern life, gardening offers a kind of screen-free downtime that can swallow whole afternoons.

A London Terrariums arrangement Credit: London Terrariums

‘I don’t think this would have happened five or 10 years ago,’ says Tom Loxley, editor of Rakesprogress, a new style magazine dedicated to flowers and gardening. ‘Now we’ve seen the limits of the digital world, and the fact is, in the non-virtual world of plants, things take time. That’s satisfying.’

Rakesprogress launched a year ago, since when four seasonal issues have been published, bringing together an open, loose approach of green appreciation with high-end photography, thanks to creative director Victoria Gaiger.

Her links to the fashion world have seen Kate Moss, Bruce Oldfield, Nick Knight, Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood come out of their gardening closets in Rakes’ pages. It joins The Plant, a biannual now  in its 10th issue, and Cedar and Pleasure Garden, doorstep-sized newcomers both, on the independent-magazine stalls.

There’s such a rewarding feeling that comes from nurturing a living thing

Many in the gardening community are quietly pleased about the new sheen being painted on its leaves. If there’s one thing gardeners are fond of, it’s more people growing beautiful things. The earth, and what you can encourage out of it, is a great leveller: being on trend won’t stop your courgettes getting mildew or keep vine weevil away.

‘There’s such a rewarding feeling that comes from nurturing a living thing, and we think that it can only continue in that direction,’ say India Hobson and Magnus Edmonson of Haarkon. 

It’s only fitting that gardening should collide with the shift towards healthy, conscious eating in a revamped grow-your-own movement. With waiting lists far longer than those racked up for new deliveries at Matches Fashion, allotments have become desirable among a new generation.

Magnus Edmonson and India Hobson of Haarkon

The Telegraph’s fashion features director, Kate Finnigan, is the proud custodian of one, and shares photos of her produce (naturally) on Instagram.

Start-ups such as Seed Pantry have reinvented buying seeds by mail order, to make growing vegetables unthreatening for the uninitiated; each month members of its Grow Club receive six kinds of food and flower seed, to start from scratch.

Growing things can prove surprisingly addictive; it lays down roots and encourages humble but persistent ambitions. This may be gardening’s greatest asset as trends shift and change. Because, as those who  have experienced the simple joy of coming home to  a flower unexpectedly in bloom will know, it isn’t easy  to give up. 

How to Grow Stuff by Alice Vincent is available at The Telegraph Bookshop. To order your copy, visit books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514

Gardening then and now